A Necessary Pairing: The Theology of Marriage and of Compassion
Editor’s Note: Wesley Hill, author of the books Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality and Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, gave this talk to the annual January gathering of CCCU presidents in Washington, D.C. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Thank you to all of you for this wonderful opportunity to address you. I don't take this for granted at all. I think this is such an important gathering of Christian leaders here today, and I'm truly honored to be able to address you. I think of myself as a grateful child of this organization. I graduated from Wheaton College in 2004, and it shaped me into the Christian and the human being that I am today. It equipped me, I believe, to think well about these matters, and I'm brimming with gratitude. …
I’ve set myself a difficult task today – a large task. I want to talk about the theology of marriage and sexuality, and I also want to talk about that theology of compassion. You might think, “These are two different topics that deserve several sessions in their own right.” That’s true, but I want to try to integrate them.
I was thinking about how to approach this talk, and I have two scenes that have come to mind over and over. They both go back to my years at Wheaton. I came to Wheaton as an 18-year-old freshman in the year 2000, at a time where these issues that we’re talking about today were not nearly as prominent – or at least, they didn’t feel as prominent. I had grown up in a fairly sheltered, conservative Baptist church in Arkansas. As far as I knew, I didn’t know any other gay people. I’m sure that I did, but I didn’t know that I knew them.
I came to Wheaton fearful about talking about this aspect of my own life. I had not shared my own story with anyone at that point. I wondered, “Would I meet any other students who were same-sex attracted, or gay, or lesbian?” As far as I could tell in my early days at Wheaton, I didn’t. It was not talked about; it wasn’t a burning issue as it is for so many of your campuses today. I found myself coming at it obliquely. I decided to write a paper my freshman year on what the Bible said about homosexuality as a way of working out some of my own angst around this. That seemed to be the way to approach things.
I remember very vividly a conversation with one of my fellow students at Wheaton, who became one of my dearest friends and is still a very close friend today. He began to voice some of his own growing uncertainty around this topic. He said to me, “I see the logic of Christian convictions on so many issues. When I think about a Christian ethical conviction like not stealing or not murdering, I can resonate with the moral logic of that. I can see that stealing from another human being harms them. … But I can’t see so easily the moral logic behind the prohibition that’s rooted in historic Christian teaching that Christians ought not to have sex with persons of the same sex. And the reason I struggle with this is I’m beginning to read stories of people who were depressed and lonely and alienated as gay people. Once they came out, once they found a partner, the depression seemed to lift. … It seems to enhance their life when they find a partner, rather than diminish their life.”
I didn’t know what to say to him. I could feel the force of that question. What is the moral logic of this? … That was what a fellow Wheaton student was asking me back in the years between 2000 and 2004, and I didn’t know what to say.
The second story that comes to mind is this: I got to my third year at Wheaton having spent three years desperately trying to escape my sexual orientation. I remember long nights in my little prayer chapel in the basement of Fischer dormitory, praying that God would engineer some reversal of my same-sex attraction; that somehow this loneliness would go away. I tortured myself with what to do about it.
I realized that I was trying to cope with the complexity of my sexuality by not talking about it to anyone, only praying about it. That seemed deeply unhealthy the more I pondered it. I had a professor at Wheaton, Dr. Mark Talbot in the philosophy department, who, when he was about 17 years old, was riding one of those zip lines, and he fell and broke his back. He has been disabled since then and has had to live with ongoing chronic pain. I took a course on the philosophy of Jonathan Edwards with Dr. Talbot. I remember him in class talking about the spiritual experience of living with ongoing chronic pain. He was fairly open about that.
I remember one day in class, he said something to the effect of, “You know, when I was in my 20s, I faced a temptation that was so overwhelmingly powerful and attractive, it felt as if the whole world would go dark if I didn’t give into it.” He didn’t say what it was, but he said the only thing he could do in response to that was to scream – I remember he used that verb – scream to the Holy Spirit to keep him from this temptation.
I remember leaving class that day and thinking, “This is a safe person to talk to. This is someone who is not presenting himself as a put-together Christian. This is someone who seems to understand the complexity of being human, the complexity of living between ‘the already and the not yet’ of redemption and final restoration of all things.”
I wrote him an email – and I kept it vague because I wanted to be able to back out at the last minute – and said, “Could we meet? I have something serious going on in my life that I need to talk to you about.” He wrote back and said, “Absolutely, come to my office.” I remember walking the long distance from Terrace Apartments to Blanchard Hall on campus, going and knowing that I was about to tell someone for the first time in my life that I had same-sex attraction. This wasn’t just a topic to write a paper about my freshman year – this was my life. This was my experience.
I got to his office, and I was even nervous sitting there waiting for him because I thought, “Are my fellow students going to wonder why I’m there, what I’m going to talk to him about?” Irrational, right? But that was how I felt. I went in and said to him, “You’re the first person I’m telling this to, but I experience homosexuality. This is not theoretical for me; this is my experience. What hope is there?”
I don’t even remember all that he said, but the main gift that he gave me [that day] was the gift of not being surprised. Wheaton, in those days, was not a place where this was very publicly talked about, but even so, he wasn’t surprised. I sometimes think of that line from Francis Schaeffer, that Christians should never have the reaction designated by the term “shocked.” We have a Gospel that’s big enough and capacious enough to handle anything that life throws at us. We should never be shocked by anything. Dr. Talbot was not shocked. He said, “You’re not the first Wheaton student who has sat in my office and told me this, and you certainly won’t be the last.”
That was a turning point. It wasn’t a dramatic turning point. There was still a lot to work through, and I’m still working through a lot today; nothing about this has the quality of having arrived. But that was a turning point, and it happened at a school like the ones you lead, and I’m grateful for it.
I’ve come to think of those two stories as not two separate stories but as related in the task that you’re wrestling with today. The one student who asked me, “What is the moral logic behind Christians being opposed to same-sex sexual coupling?” And me, another student, asking my professor, “What hope is there in the midst of the experience of same-sex attraction?” These are not two separate questions; they’re deeply integrated. They belong together.
If we’re going to think well about these things, we have to grapple with them together. We have to think about theology, and we have to think about pastoral care. We have to think about biblical exegesis, and we have to think about empathy and solidarity. I want to think a little bit with you about how we might hold those together.
In my chapter in this book, I try to grapple with this question of the moral logic of the biblical prohibitions, and I borrow that language from James Brownson; some of you will know his significant book that came out a couple year ago, Bible, Gender, Sexuality. James Brownson is a New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan, and he opens his book by saying that for too long, we have treated biblical texts around homosexuality in a piecemeal fashion. Whether we’re on the left or the right end of the spectrum, we’ve mined the Bible for answers to our contemporary conundrums. He says what we need to do is delve deeper. We need to dig deeper into the moral logic of the texts.
I find that a helpful way of conceptualizing our task. As Christian thinkers, to be faithful to Scripture doesn’t mean simply repeating the words of Scripture. Certainly we’re called to preserve the words and to memorize the words and to pass on the words – we can’t do that without the Bible. But as we explain Christian theology to students, as we lead them into the fabric of Christian belief, we’re trying to expose and uncover the deep moral and theological logic that undergirds what the Bible affirms and says.
I take Brownson’s challenge as a good one. We ought not simply to quote Romans 1 and think that our task is finished. We ought to grapple with the theological engine that is driving Romans 1. What’s animating what Paul says there? I want to, if I may, quote from my own essay from this book. I try, in this chapter, to expose the fact that Paul seems to be working with a creational logic in Romans 1.
Now, Brownson disagrees with this; he thinks the reason Paul is opposed to same-sex coupling is because the kind of same-sex coupling that Paul observed in his day was one that was inextricably linked with violence and exploitation. Homosexuality was often practiced in unequal partnerships of master and slave. For Brownson, what Paul is really animated by and angered by is the inequality and the violence, and now that we today know that homosexuality can exist in equal partnerships, we shouldn’t think that Paul’s words carry the same force today that they did in his day. That’s Brownson’s case in brief.
I don’t think that works, and here’s why. Let me read you what I wrote [in this chapter]: “The backdrop for Paul’s indictment” – and by the way, it’s an indictment of all humanity, not just same-sex practitioners; all of us are included in the story of Romans 1 – “the backdrop for Paul’s indictment is crucial for an understanding of its precise contours. Paul appears to be telling a story rooted in Israel’s Scripture, and specifically in the Genesis creation narratives. In Romans 1:20, he mentions the creation, and in 1:25, he names God as the Creator. Furthermore, the imagery he uses – birds and four-footed animals and reptiles in verse 23 – would appear to echo the Septuagint rendering of Genesis 1:20.
“Also in Romans 1:23 are multiple verbal links to Genesis 1:26. In both texts, the same words appear, rendered in English as images resembling mortal being, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. Aside from these references, the wider context of Genesis 3 is evoked when Paul speaks of a lie, shame, and the decree of death.” Here’s my conclusion: “In short, the story of God’s making the world, God’s giving a command to Adam, and Adam’s subsequent fall form the backdrop for Paul’s diagnosis of the human condition in Romans 1.”
Paul is drawing on the story of creation, and it’s in that context, I think, that we can begin to understand what he means when he calls same-sex coupling “unnatural.” Notice this in verse 26: “For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another. Men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Scholars have spilled enormous amounts of ink trying to understand, “What does Paul mean by ‘nature’ here? Is he talking about individual people who, when they look inside, find themselves to have a particular nature – i.e. heterosexual – and then they willfully rebel against that nature by embracing same-sex sexuality?”
I don’t think that’s it at all. I don’t think Paul is thinking in those kinds of individualized terms. He’s telling a story rooted in the Genesis account. Nature, for Paul, is defined by God’s creative intention. Nature is what we see displayed in Genesis 1 and 2. Nature is the world as God intends it to be. When Paul says that there are people who have exchanged that nature [for what is unnatural], he’s not singling out gay sinners; he’s telling a parable that affects all of us.
We have all exchanged the truth about God for a lie. We’ve all exchanged the worship of the Creator for the worship of fellow creatures. We’ve all become idolaters. John Calvin called our hearts “idol factories.” We’re experts in idolatry. Homosexuality, in this account, is one particularly vivid illustration of a condition that affects us all. It’s one particular way of missing the mark of the Creator’s design. It’s one particular way of falling short of the world as God intended it to be.
That’s the moral logic, I think. It’s not just a creational logic – it’s also a redemptive logic. We see that in 1 Corinthians 6, which is one of the other infamous passages where Paul mentions same-sex sexual activity. He says this in 1 Corinthians 6:9: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you, but you were washed. You were sanctified. You were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the spirit of our God.”
Notice the complementary logic here. If Romans 1 says that same-sex coupling misses the mark because of how God originally created the world to be, 1 Corinthians 6 comes at it from a different angle. 1 Corinthians 6 says that because God is now at work justifying and sanctifying and redeeming people; because God is at work restoring his creation; because God is taking those who have fallen from the design of Genesis 1 and 2 and is remaking them; therefore, among those of you who name the name of Christ, this is not who you are anymore. You’ve been redeemed. You’ve been pulled out of that old life of sin and death, and you’ve been washed clean and made new.
That’s why I think Paul ends this chapter of 1 Corinthians 6 on a note of redemption. “Flee,” he writes in verse 18. “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body.” That’s perhaps a Corinthian’s slogan thrown in Paul’s face. [A Corinthian would say,] “We can do whatever we want with our sex lives because every sin a person commits is outside the body. Paul counters that: “The sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body.”
Not only were you created a certain way, male and female, but you have been redeemed so that now your baptized body doesn’t belong to you. You’ve been purchased by God; you’ve been called out of a life of darkness. Therefore, a baptismal life carries certain expectations with it; certain moral obligations are laid on those who’ve been rescued from sin and death by the work of Christ.
I think that would be my reply to Brownson. I think he’s absolutely right to press us, and I hope you feel the challenge to inquire into the deep theological logic of what the Bible says about sex. Don’t be content with the bare command. Probe deeper and ask about the rationale for the command.
I love what Richard Bauckham says about New Testament ethics, that the commands of God are windows into the world as God has designed it to be and how the world one day will be in the restoration of all things. The commands are, if you like, sign posts. They’re previews of how God wants the world to be and how God has promised to remake the world in Christ.
But I think it won’t do to simply repeat this logic. And I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I think sometimes preaching to the choir is worth doing. It won’t do to simply repeat this logic to students who are wrestling and crying in dormitory basement prayer rooms, as I was at Wheaton. There has to be a theology of compassionate, pastoral ministry in which this biblical theological logic can be explored in the context of real questions and real humanity.
That’s certainly what I experienced at Wheaton, and it’s my prayer for all of our campuses that this kind of pastoral care for students can happen. I’m encouraged to hear more and more about small groups … where this kind of wrestling can happen in community. … I think our challenge as we think about offering this biblical, theological, moral logic as a gift to our students is how to do so with real grace, real pastoral sensitivity that reaches into the heart of students wrestling [with their sexuality].
One of the things I want to recommend to you – and I expect this will be controversial – but I want to recommend a move away from a recovery model of thinking about same-sex attraction to a vocation model of thinking about same-sex attraction. Let me say that one more time: I want to recommend to you a move away from what we might think of as a recovery model to a vocation model.
Let me see if I can say this sensitively. When I began to talk with my fellow Christians about my own sexuality, I quickly heard promises that God wanted to restore me to full “heterosexual functioning,” as it was sometimes described. I remember going to a fellow Wheaton grad, who remains a very dear friend, and having her urge me to meet with a counselor who’d profoundly helped her in her life. I went, and this Christian counselor on our first meeting told me, categorically, “I can promise you 100 percent change in your sexuality if you offer this to God.”
The danger in that kind of promise is the danger that always lurks in promises of healing: If you fail to achieve it, the condemnation is on you for not having enough faith, for not trusting enough in the promise of God to deliver you.
I want to urge us to make room for stories of profound change. I think Mark Yarhouse’s language of “significant shifts along a continuum of change” is something I’ve heard firsthand from same-sex attracted people. I think of my friend, Kyle Keating, who realized he was predominantly attracted to persons of the same sex in high school; he now writes with me and speaks with me on occasion. Kyle would describe his story as one of falling in love with the woman he’s now married to, Christy. He said it did not affect a total reversal. He still prefers to think of himself as in some way bisexual, still attracted to men, but he’s profoundly attracted to Christy and is committed to this marriage. I want to hold up stories like Kyle’s as one of the ways that Christ can transform a life.
But I don’t want to so hold it up that it becomes the paradigm for all Christians when they think about how to live well before God with same-sex attraction. My story is one, unlike Kyle’s, of really having no significant development of opposite-sex attraction. I first sensed that I was same-sex attracted around 14, 15 years old, maybe a little earlier, and I am still just as same-sex attracted – if not more – today, at age 35, as I ever have been. I want to believe that that’s not simply a result of rebellion, that it’s not simply a result of closing my ears and heart to God, but that this is the path that God has offered me to walk.
One of the places I often go when I talk with people is to a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote in the 1950s. Some of you will know that beautiful book, A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken. It’s a story of a dramatic conversion out of “happy paganism” into Christianity. Vanauken, after he became a Christian, really didn’t know anything about Christian ethics, sexual or otherwise. He moved back to the States and found himself as a Bible study leader, and he didn’t know what to say to all the gay people who came to his Bible study and asked him, “How ought we to live now as baptized Christians?”
So Vanauken did what anyone in his shoes would do: He wrote to his friend C.S. Lewis and asked him for advice. Lewis wrote back – and I want you to hear this. I want you to hear how ahead of its time it is. This is well before the organization of ex-gay ministries. This is well before what I’ve called the “recovery model.”
Lewis says this: “Our speculations on the cause … are not what matters and we must be content with ignorance. The disciples were not told why (in terms of efficient cause) the man was born blind (in John 9): only the final cause, that the works of God should be made manifest in him. This suggests that in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation, those works can be made manifest: i.e. that every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’”
Lewis goes on a few sentences later to describe a “certain pious homosexual man” who believed that “his necessity could be turned to spiritual gain, that there were certain kinds of sympathy and understanding, a certain social role” which only he could play.
I tell you friends, when I read that – when I encountered that way of thinking about things … that my calling was to see how God might want to take … this thing in my life that feels so central and so confusing, that God might want to take that and use it as the thing that would lead me to give myself away in love to my community – that was a paradigm shift for me. It caused me to begin to ask the question: What could a future look like as an intentionally celibate Christian, who wasn’t just living in an apartment off by himself eating frozen pizzas on Friday night, but who was devoting himself to a community, devoting himself to friendship, forming thick bonds of kinship with fellow Christians?
That was a revolution in my thinking – that my calling might not be to spend the next 20 years of my life in therapy trying to find the childhood moment where things went wrong. But my calling was instead to find that certain social role that only I can play – that in fact, under God’s providence, this thorn in my flesh, this being gay, might in fact be the very way that I could form deeper friendships with my fellow Christians, that I could be led into deeper ministry among my fellow Christians. That was a revolution in my thinking, and I’m still trying to work it out today.
I want to suggest to you that one of the most important things you can do on your campuses is cast a vision of what a hopeful future could look like for your students who are same-sex attracted. For so many of us, when we think about living out our lives in the evangelical church as gay – and as celibate, probably, for most of us – the future looks blank. We can’t picture what it would look like because we don’t have models of how this goes. I’ve spent all my life in the church, and I have rarely seen people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are talking openly about what it looks like to embrace a vocation of celibacy.
I remember recently talking to a Roman Catholic friend of mine who grew up in the church. He said, “From the time I was 4 years old, it was a huge question in my mind as to whether God might call me to be celibate” – because God might call him to be a priest. As soon as I heard him say that, I thought, “Our childhoods were so profoundly different because it never occurred to me that God might call me to be celibate. It never occurred to me to contemplate the single life.” I always simply assumed I’d go to college and meet my spouse like my parents did and live a Christian life by having kids and being part of a family values church. That was the future; that was the path. It never occurred to me that God might have in mind a vocation of celibacy. I apparently never read 1 Corinthians 7.
But this is the challenge for you, to cast a vision – and it doesn’t have to be one vision; I think there are 100 different models that this could take for your students – but to cast a vision [for your students]: “This is what a hopeful future looks like for you. If you’re same-sex attracted, and you’ve tried everything, and you haven’t experienced one iota of change in your same-sex attraction, and you’re wanting to give your life to God in celibacy, that does not have to equal loneliness. That does not have to equal isolation. … There’s a life for you. There’s a future for you that doesn’t simply look like alienation from your fellow believers in the church who seem to be so fixated on the nuclear family.”
Finally, I want to leave you with two words that have become particularly important to me as I think about ministry in this area: solidarity and empathy. What I am praying for you is that you will find yourself thinking of your same-sex attracted students not as a liability on your campus, but as people you’re in solidarity with.
One of the most moving stories, for me, that Mark [Yarhouse] tells is of being at an APA meeting around a lot of secular colleagues and hearing one of his gay colleagues talk about the need to care for “our people,” meaning his fellow gay and lesbian people. Mark said he sat there, and he asked himself the question, “Is that how we in the church think about gay and lesbian Christians? Are they our people?”
Are we in solidarity with them, or are they somehow a pastoral problem to be fixed? Something that we hope that would simply go away? Are we in solidarity with our students who are wrestling in this way?
Finally, empathy – understanding and sharing the feelings of another. As I was flying in last night, I was finishing a book that my best friend recommended that I read, Scenes of Clerical Life, by George Eliot. This is a book written by George Eliot before she became the George Eliot of Middlemarch. For those of you who don’t know her story, she was probably the Victorian era’s greatest novelist. She was raised in an evangelical Church of England home and eventually came to reject Christianity in favor of what she called a “creed of human sympathy.” She felt that God was actually a hindrance to our being good to our fellow creatures, so she abandoned Christianity.
But her vision of what sympathy means is one that I think we Christians can learn a lot from. In this little book, she has a novella called “Janet’s Repentance.” She describes in this novella the story of Janet, who’s broken and wounded and wrestling with an addiction and finds herself wanting, in this story, to have someone to confide in. She finally wants to approach the new evangelical minister who’s arrived in town, Mr. Tryan. “Janet felt,” Eliot writes, “she was alone. No human soul had measured her anguish, had understood her self-despair, had entered into her sorrows and her sins with that deep-sighted sympathy, which is wiser than all blame, more potent than all reproof.”
[Janet] invites Mr. Tryan, the minister, to speak with her, and it’s among the most moving dialogue I’ve read, I think, in fiction, but she says this to Mr. Tryan: “I want to tell you how unhappy I am, how weak and wicked. I feel no strength to live or die. I thought you could tell me something that would help me.”
“Perhaps, I can,” Mr. Tryan said, “For in speaking to me, you are speaking to a fellow sinner who has needed just the comfort and help you are needing.”
That’s the key to this story. When Janet approaches Mr. Tryan for some help and comfort, when she approaches needing to confess, she isn’t met with blame or reproof; she’s met with a fellow sinner who understands – a fellow sinner who’s in need of the same comfort she herself is in need of:
He saw that the first thing Janet needed was to be assured of sympathy. She must be made to feel that her anguish was not strange to him; that he entered into the only half-expressed secrets of her spiritual weakness before any other message of consolation could find its way to her heart. The tale of the Divine Pity was never yet believed from lips that were not felt to be moved by human pity.
Isn’t that beautiful? The only way Janet can ever hope to hear the message of the Gospel, which Mr. Tryan goes on to explain to her, is because she senses first that this person she’s confiding to is a person of sympathy – a person who is not dispensing wisdom from on high, but a person who’s approaching her in solidarity; a person who’s approaching her as a fellow sufferer, a fellow sinner who understands. The only hope she has of hearing the Gospel, the “message of Divine Pity,” is from these lips that are expressing human pity. I think that’s a beautiful pastoral paragraph.
I want to commend that to you as you think about ministering to same-sex attracted students. Please don’t think of us as “over there.” Please don’t reduce us to the category of “activists” or “projects” or “pastoral fixes.” Please think of us as one of you. Please think of us as fellow sinners who need the Gospel of the Divine Pity, who need to be reminded, not only of the moral logic of the Bible’s prohibitions, but of the Divine Pity that forgives and cancels those prohibitions and gives us power to live up to them in Christ. Thank you so much.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. In addition to his books, he serves on the editorial board for Christianity Today and writes regularly for that magazine as well as for First Things and other publications.